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Of Art and Therapy

This week's blog is brought to our Mr. Perfect community by David Graham.

Depending on how you count it, Dave is embarking on his 3rd or 4th career. After completing postgraduate research in mathematics he spent the next decade working for Defence, which included deployments to Afghanistan and the Middle East. He’s now working as a junior doctor, is actively publishing research in medical journals, and loving life as a first time Dad with another on the way.


Picture courtesy of "Art Therapy - by Sankalpa"


About a year after Mum’s death, I became really serious about painting. I’d always enjoyed art, and had dabbled over the years. I’ll always remember my year 11 visual arts teacher telling me that I was abandoning a sinking ship after I thanked her for an award. Her spiteful words echoed throughout my university studies, staining them with regret.

At this phase in my life I started to call myself an emerging artist. I suppose it was true to some extent. I had representation at a private gallery in Melbourne and had a couple of exhibitions. I took advantage of certain tax breaks and reduced my hours at work so that I could focus on my art. I even started a postgraduate fine art degree at the Victorian College of Art.

The act slowly lost its authenticity. Perhaps I was the only one who was fooled in the first place. So I proudly dropped out of one of Australia’s finest art schools and didn’t look back.

I now have an enormous collection of very large paintings. And sculptures made of found objects. And fragments of installations scattered through the house in pieces. I’ve been carting this stuff around with me ever since. They’re tokens of an important period of my life.

Maybe it was my later self just re-interpreting that work, re-forming the concepts with new eyes and new thoughts. But it slowly dawned on me a few years ago that much of this work was really just me trying to process Mum’s death and dying.

She died from cancer at 52. Her initial diagnosis came when I was on sabbatical in Germany. She wanted nothing more than for me to spend that time in Germany, and I wanted nothing more than to come home and be with her. I stayed, and I got drunk.

She went into remission for a couple of years then the mets came in her bones. I was working towards a new career at this stage and had just submitted my PhD. She was so proud, and I cherished the dwindling moments that we had together. We talked of autumn leaves and of life’s journey. There was no pretence, there was no act.

The end came swift as the night.

While cancer had taken my own mother from me, it had given us real time together to talk openly and honestly. It seems that the imminence of death makes life that much more valuable. You have to cherish that.

My early paintings were big. Very big. Big and sombre. The palate of that initial series was black and red and crimson. As blood and death and sex and violence. They were textured like flesh. This was my Vision Logic series, a series that I had originally thought was about the non-rational, but I now realise it’s about Mum and it’s about grief. It’s about trying to resolve conflicting feelings of loss and hope.

A little light reading of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and the palate transformed to softly textured all black and all white human-sized paintings. Together with a closed box and scattered autumn leaves (another nod to Mum), I showed these paintings in my Authenticity exhibition. The link with Sartre is embarrassingly too obvious, but the transformation in my sense of self began to emerge. I’d begun to lift my expression from the canvas and into three dimensions, into infinite possibilities.

Informed by my wider reading of art theory, literature and philosophy, it was from here that my work launched into very rich and multiple modes of expression. Though in a way I’d begun to step away.

I couldn’t stop writing. In a flurry, I wrote a novella (an excerpt can be found here) that I included in an installation. I’ve recently returned to this novella and am re-working it beneath the weight of new experiences.

On reflection I kind of feel that I’d deconstructed myself through art, breaking myself down. It wasn’t that the “emerging artist” label wasn’t me, it’s more that it was the scaffolding for a construction site. It allowed me to sublimate what was a deeply profound experience of loss.

Perhaps this was the psychotherapy that I needed.

I had a long conversation with an art therapist in my final year of medical school. She worked with children and adolescents in a high dependency psych ward. I found her work inspired, to say the least. It really bears testament to the power of using multiple modes of expression in the therapeutic relationship.

I was interested in how art could be used to understand psychological theory. Specifically, I was thinking about how Duchamp’s Large Glass (my favourite artwork) seemed to symbolise Deleuze and Guattari’s “schizoanalysis” that they laid out in their dense tome Anti-Oedipus. To be honest, I was trying to wrap my head around it by appropriating the Large Glass as a metaphor.

She thought I meant that I wanted to use psychological theory as a means of interpreting the works of patients in art therapy.

So she showed me a collection of works by some of the patients and highlighted three broad groups. First, there were frenetic scribblings in black and white and red, with phrases written in angry scrawl that screamed “they all hate you” and “I just want to die.” Next there were the Rothko-like and very sombre colour fields. Finally there were the garish paintings in a single and very noisy colour.

She explained to me that patients with depression and anxiety who have well-formed thoughts of suicide and self-harm tend to produce works from the first group. Patients who are so burdened by their feelings and delusions that they struggle to put them into words tend to produce paintings in the second group. And finally patients who have florid psychosis tend to produce works from the third group in as they struggle to mute the voices and the delusions.

This struck a chord with my own personal journey.

We each have our own way of expressing ourselves. The richness and diversity of communication isn’t limited to the verbal or the written form. There is the gestalt language of the body, from dance to playing soccer to cooking to creating large paintings. There is complex symbolism of literature and installations. I struggle to talk about my thoughts and feelings, which is why I write. And I know that I can paint if I need to express something darkly deep and pre-formed.

Mum used to say that life is a journey, and I used to counter that life is an adventure. But I think that we are the journey, we are the adventure. Heraclitus said that we never cross the same bridge twice because all things are in flux. We are never fixed and fully formed beings; we change over time. And it’s never really clear which direction we’re headed when we look out from the patch of dirt that we’re grounded on. Without that arbitrary dirt, we float directionless.

I carry my paintings with me, and I’m not sure where to put them. Some are hanging on the wall, some are with friends, but most are just stacked up against the wall. They’re an important part of me, a reminder of that difficult time of my life. They remind me to own my mistakes and my experiments of self. They remind me to own my journey, warts and all. They remind me of my struggle with loss and grief. They remind me of Mum.

And so the journey continues, from this patch of dirt.

1 comment

  • Dr Aimee Maxwell

    What a beautiful story. I love that you were unable to see your depths while you were living them – but then later could reflect and reappraise your works.

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